Nothing Happening Here: Protest Music, Then and Now

You're feeling your freedom, and the world's off your back, some cowboy from Texas, starts his own war in Iraq."

So runs a line from "Some Humans Ain't Human," a song from John Prine's latest album, Fair and Square.

For Blanco resident Dave Collins, a former Marine who fought in Vietnam, that couplet was galvanizing. "I'll tell you, you can talk to a lot of politically active Vietnam veterans who became active after the war, and that one lyric describes the way a lot of us are feeling."

Collins says that it was only as the 1990s came to an end that the many of them had finally laid their troubles to rest. And then along came Dubya. "We'd established our careers and our families and buried our ghosts and demons, and we were cruising into late middle age and our early senior years."

The year 2003 was very tough, not just for the troops in Iraq but also for Vietnam veterans, Collins says. "Since 2003, there has been a huge spike in post-­traumatic stress disorder within the Veterans Ad­min­istration," he says. "For me, anyway, and I tell other veterans this, it was just exactly the way Prine described it. We finally thought things were going good and here came this shit."

The war in Iraq not so much picked at the scabs of many Vietnam veterans but opened fresh wounds. "It's a lot of things," Collins says. "It's watching the news reports and seeing yourself in those young faces. I spoke at the first [antiwar] rally in Crawford in the fall of 2003, and I told the audience about this photo floating around the Internet. It was a picture of a Marine rifle company in Iraq, and they had formed up to spell a message. And the message was 'We Remember 9/11.' And I told the audience that when I saw that message I wept."

Collins said that only the other veterans in the audience knew what he was talking about then. "I saw me in that picture," Collins explains. "Not in the sands of Iraq, but on the tarmac at Da Nang airport, fully believing that what I was doing was honorable, that I was defending the Constitution, the whole nine yards. And I understood what a big number of those young Marines were gonna be going through before it was all over.

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"Not just the war, but more importantly, they were gonna come to discover that they had been lied to horribly, and that everything they had experienced had been based on a lie. And I knew what that was gonna cost them. I think that's a fairly common experience among Vietnam veterans."

In 2003, Collins reenlisted in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, an organization he had joined in 1971 and mustered out of in 1973. Prine's song has brought great comfort and solidarity to him and his fellow vets. Such is the power of music.

Apparently, that lesson has not been lost on the ­powers-that-be. In contrast to the politically charged music of Vietnam era, the sound track to the Iraq war has gone mostly unheard.

And it is out there. Over the past four or five years here, I have been deluged with antiwar CDs, many from unknown artists. The vast majority of these have been terrible from opening note to final fade. Most of these singers hector and badger and let the message run roughshod over their music. It's hard to make words like "weapons of mass destruction," "extraordinary rendition" and "neo-con ­hegemony" ­really sing.

Some of the more famous examples of modern-day protest songs are almost as bad. Any list of these would have to include Internet/critical hits like Bright Eyes's "When the President Talks to God" and TV on the Radio's "Dry Drunk Emperor."

Sadly, the Bright Eyes tune sounds like a pill-headed 16-year-old pretending to be Bob Dylan, while "Dry Drunk Emperor" is little more than a babble of mock-­profundities scattered about on the feeble winds of a tuneless "soundscape."

Then there's John Mayer's "Waiting for the World to Change," which was a mainstream hit and actually is pleasant enough as a piece of background music.

Mayer claims this song was inspired by Curtis Mayfield. Yep, that's right. Mayer claims that lines like "One day our generation is gonna rule the population, so we keep on waiting, waiting for the world to change" were inspired by the guy who commanded his fans to "Move On Up" and told them to ditch self-pity in "We're a Winner." 'Cause, you know, that's kind of what, like, the whole Civil Rights movement was about, you know? Sitting back and waiting for the nice man to give you your 40 acres and a mule.

Given its sentiment of passive non­resistance, it's no surprise that Mayer's song is one of the precious few expressions of even mild discontent to slip past the ever-vigilant goalies guarding mainstream radio playlists. Another has been Green Day, whose American Idiot is more or less the exception to the rule. So far it stands as the only topical album of its era that is both a mainstream smash and ­actually good music.

But the guys in Green Day are pushing 40 now, and the bulk of the rest of the best of today's protest singers are the same guys who sang similar tunes long ago.

On the rock side, there's people like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp and John Fogerty, whose brand-new album Revival shows him to be every bit the original punk rocker he was on "Fortunate Son" in 1969. (For my money, that was the birth of punk right there.) You won't be hearing them on the radio, though, as they are classic rock artists, and the radio consultants will tell you that nobody wants to hear any new music from any of them, thanks very much.

Nor will you be hearing anything like the Legendary K.O.'s "George Bush Don't Like Black People" or any other rap that is not about bitches or bling. The rap radio consultants will tell you that conscious rap doesn't "test well."

As for country, the usual ­suspects like Willie and Steve Earle continue to release solid albums to much critical fanfare and virtually no airplay. Again, those guys are "heritage artists," or some such.

Also, we found out the extent of the irrationality of the post-Dixie Chick landscape in 2005, when Merle Haggard released "Rebuild America First" as a single from his album Chicago Wind, which came out about a month after Katrina, when Bush's ratings were as low as they could possibly go.

Haggard is arguably the greatest living talent in country music, and he was again with a major label with plenty of promotion muscle, and the nation had need of his wisdom.

But such was not to be. This time around, he wasn't toeing the party line by saying he was proud to be an Okie from Muskogee nor threatening those that ran down his country as he did in "Fightin' Side of Me."

This time, he was saying, "Yeah, men in position but backing away, freedom is stuck in reverse, let's get out of Iraq and get back on the track, and let's rebuild America first."

Even after all of the lies about the war had been exposed, even after all of America watched a beloved American city (as we knew it) perish in slow motion, even as Bush's ratings sank to sub-­Nixonian levels, country radio backed away from that song.

"Clear Channel's not gonna play anything that costs them advertising money or goes against the party line or whatever you want to call it," says KPFT's Larry Winters.

And they are still less likely to play something by relatively unknown artists, some of whom have created the very finest music of our times. There's James McMurtry's "We Can't Make It Here," which Collins calls "the first really comprehensive look at what's going on now, not strictly the war, but the whole package." There are also killer songs like the Decemberists' "16 Military Wives" and Todd Snider's "Ballad of the Kingsmen." Nope, you didn't hear those on the radio either. They sounded too jarring when they came up against the Chevy commercials.

Collins says that the situation was not as different back in his youth as people might think today. "There was pretty tight control of what was on the AM radio then, but in '66, '67 and '68, so-called underground radio came around to blossom on FM," he says. "And hell, that was all anybody I knew listened to. I was on a base in California at that time, and we listened to the Doors, Hendrix and the Airplane."

Today, the underground is confined to a few public radio stations in major markets and the Internet, and that's the problem. These days it seems like no two thousand kids are fans of the same band, and then few of those two thousand dig the same songs.

Culturally speaking, we are now an atomized country, sliced and diced into millions of tiny cliques, each of us gorging off our own list of bookmarked MP3 blogs and overstuffed iPods, taking in dozens of new songs a week but absorbing and comprehending almost nothing.

Contrast that to 1968, the year Collins went off to Vietnam: "I think hindsight provides a more homogeneous view of my generation's youth than may be accurate, but there was a huge contingent of white, relatively middle-class kids who constituted what was referred to as the counterculture," Collins says.

As for today? The Buzz is the so-called "new music alternative" on the FM dial, allegedly the home of rock and roll, once the sound track to the rebellion of American youth, the music of the ­counterculture.

On October 28, the station will be hosting its annual BuzzFest, sponsored by Bud Light, McDonald's, Pontiac, Darque Tan and — get this — the good old United States Army.

Somehow I don't think the Army had a corporate tent at Woodstock or Altamont. Real life gets more like The Simpsons every day.


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